“Naperville” — ★ ★ ★
In “Naperville,” Mat Smart’s 2014 dramedy about loss, regret and perseverance, every character struggles. Every character grieves.
They seek solace at the Caribou Coffee shop located in the titular DuPage County burg where Smart sets his gently humorous play in a nicely understated revival at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, whose production concludes its pandemic-shortened season.
There, inside a comfortably benign coffeehouse (a spot-on re-creation by set designer Sarah Lewis), a group of people establish a connection based — at least initially — on little more than their shared love of premium java.
Central to the play is the relationship between concerned son Howard (Ravi Kalani) and his mother, Candice (Kelli Walker), who recently lost her eyesight following a household accident. Their visit to Candice’s favorite coffee spot marks her first excursion since the accident.
After a serious accident, Candice (Kelli Walker) returns to her favorite coffeehouse, where she encounters coffee pal Roy (Robert Jordan Bailey) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble’s revival of “Naperville” by Mat Smart. – Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography by signing up you agree to our terms of service
Howard, who has returned home to care for her, worries that her “John Wayne attitude” might result in additional injuries. Determined to manage this disability on her own, Candice bristles at his protectiveness.
Keeping their coffee cups filled is enthusiastic new barista T.C. (Whitney Dottery), who also attends to Anne (Lisa Dawn), a high school classmate of Howard, who has returned to her childhood home following the breakup of her marriage. She’s working on a podcast about Captain Joseph Naper, who gave up sailing the Great Lakes to farm and found the city that bears his name. Candice’s acquaintance Roy (Robert Jordan Bailey), a perpetually cheery man of faith, also stops by.
Each character has suffered a loss: a sense, a parent, a partner, a lifelong passion. You could say that each one is slightly adrift and in need of a course correction, rather like Captain Naper himself, according to history enthusiast Anne.
Smart — a Waubonsie Valley High School graduate and former Naperville resident — also references Naper Settlement, Neuqua Valley High School and local hero, gold-medal Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek, in his play. This isn’t the case of a writer using his hometown as a punchline. Smart has genuine affection for the suburb and its residents.
Caribou Coffee barista T.C. (Whitney Dottery), second from left, tries to close up, but patrons Howard (Ravi Kalani), left, his mother Candice (Kelli Walker), second from right, and Roy (Robert Jordan Bailey), right, are disinclined to leave the coffee shop in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble’s production of the dramedy “Naperville.” – Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography
That said, Smart tries a little too hard, especially near the end where he spreads the pop philosophy a bit thick. The final scene feels a bit corny, but it doesn’t detract from what is a poignant play about perseverance.
Director Kurt Naebig doesn’t make a big deal about things, and his restraint makes for a congenial, low-key production that hits the right notes emotionally.
The acting is solid. Dottery is especially endearing as the over-caffeinated, eager-to-please, ever-resilient T.C., who struggles to find her way back from a life-altering experience, which Dottery recalls with heartfelt simplicity. “I can start again,” insists the garrulous barista. Never for a moment do we doubt her.
As Anne, a woman plagued by guilt who struggles to rebuild her life, Dawn delivers the latest in a string of standout performances characterized by thoughtful, economical acting.